Useful as a means of resolving issues before they escalate, verbal warnings are an important learning area for managers and HR team members.
This article will give you an in-depth understanding of verbal warnings: what a verbal warning is, why you may need to issue one, how to effectively do so, and our top tips for making the process as seamless as possible.
What is a verbal warning?
A verbal warning may be necessary when an employee breaks company policy or exhibits poor conduct.
It’s usually one of the first stages of the disciplinary process, and can sometimes be used as a means of warning an employee about their behavior before taking more serious, formal action. Some verbal warnings will fall inside a formal disciplinary process.
Verbal warnings may be issued to an individual who acts inappropriately, ignores important safety regulations, performs badly in their role or has a poor attendance record.
Why are verbal warnings important?
Verbal warnings are important because they encourage open communication and allow employees a chance to rectify mistakes or explain why something might have happened, before more formal action takes place.
A verbal warning can show you’re invested in the employee in question and want to give them a chance to make a change. Framed in the right way, it can be a positive step to help progress.
The overall objective is to improve employee performance, which, if effective, is beneficial to both employer and employee and improves the overall workplace culture.
Verbal warning vs written warning
Verbal warnings tend to be the first step in the disciplinary process. As a result, they’re often viewed as less ‘formal’ than a written warning.
Although the manager or HR executive giving the warning will wish to record the details of the conversation, it might be that if the issue is resolved it’s something that doesn’t end up on the employee’s record. This is a matter of individual workplace policy.
Written warnings tend to be given if the issue raised in the verbal warning isn’t sorted out within an agreed-upon time period.
A written warning is considered more formal, and is likely to stay on someone's record.
Formal warning vs informal warning
Although often considered an informal step to try and alleviate the need for a formal process, many companies do use verbal warnings formally.
Before giving an employee a verbal warning you’ll need to decide if it’s more appropriate that it’s formal or informal.
If you want to keep the warning informal, you may wish to organize a conversation between yourself and the individual somewhere private. Letting them know ahead of time what you want to talk about is a good way to allow them to prepare.
However, if a formal verbal warning feels more appropriate, you should ensure the right people are in the room, and all parties involved are clear on the process, the objectives and the desired outcomes.
When should you issue a verbal warning?
This will be determined by your company policy, but there are a few different reasons you may wish to give a verbal warning.
Attendance — if an employee is regularly late to work or important meetings or appears to be absent without explanation during working hours you may wish to administer a verbal warning.
Inappropriate behavior — this could cover a whole range of different things, including how someone treats others in the workplace, how they’re dressed, their respect for their surroundings and office property, communication style and much more. You should always be clear on how you expect people to behave from the outset.
Poor performance — everyone is hired according to an individual job description, an agreed contract or set of objectives that define each employee’s purpose in the workplace. If someone is failing to meet this, a verbal warning might be the best way to try and resolve the issue.
Breaking company policy — if you have a set company policy that you expect employees to adhere to, you must communicate this as soon as they’re hired, if not before, to ensure they’re aware of what’s expected of them. If you do this and an employee fails to behave as required, you may wish to issue a verbal warning.
Ignoring safety regulations — depending on the role, following safety regulations can be incredibly important for the employee’s own safety, but also the safety of others.
Procedures for issuing a verbal warning
To make the verbal warning process as effective as possible for you and your employee, it’s best to follow a set procedure. Your company may have their own process, but if not, this one will be helpful:
1. Review company policies and procedures
The first step is to see if your company has a formal procedure in place to follow for disciplining staff, and how they like verbal warnings to be given (e.g. formally or informally, and where in the process).
You may wish to speak to someone in HR, a more senior member of staff, or someone who has experience of giving a verbal warning at the company.
Review the procedure closely and ensure you follow every stage.
2. Document the issue
It’s important to have a paper trail to show you’ve endeavored to follow company policy.
This is helpful should any issues arise further down the line, or should the employee you’re issuing the verbal warning to want an explanation.
Always try to document things clearly and concisely, and keep personal feelings or opinions out of it.
3. Schedule a meeting with the employee
Schedule a meeting with the employee with advance warning, and a clear rationale of why you want to meet. This gives them time to prepare, and bring any documents or supporting information along.
If possible, the meeting should take place in a quiet setting and should be kept private in calendars.
4. Prepare for the meeting
Preparation will help you articulate your points clearly, and ensure the meeting time is used effectively.
Don’t be afraid to write a rough agenda or helpful prompts, or bring along supporting documents such as the company policy, which shows why the issue is considered worthy of a verbal warning.
5. Deliver the warning
As well as delivering the warning itself, you need to share your expectations around resolving the issue including what progress you expect to see, and by when.
This is really important as it gives the employee a clear plan to work toward.
6. Provide guidance and support
Employees are much more likely to be responsive if they feel supported through the process.
Before the meeting, you could prepare a list of training or resources they may be able to access for guidance, or a plan on how you can help them to deliver the agreed objective(s).
It’s much more likely that the process won’t have to go any further if the right support framework is put in place from the beginning. Try to make the employee feel valued throughout the conversation.
Together, you may wish to agree on how this guidance and support will work in practice, and if you want to use any documents or regular check ins.
7. Document the verbal warning
Whether the process is considered ‘on’ or ‘off’ record, you may still want to document the verbal warning in case you need it further down the line for a variety of different reasons.
Without proper documentation, it would be hard to prove the conversation had taken place, which could prove tricky.
Your company may have its own documentation that they would like you to use. But if not, it’s important that you record the following:
The conversation that took place
The support and guidance offered
The agreed goal, or change the employee will make
The time frame they're expected to make it in
Any additional information
8. Follow-up actions
Follow-up actions may be given to the employee, or the employer or the HR executive leading the conversation.
The actions should be clear, appropriate to the level of issue and ideally set against a realistic timeframe.
Actions given to an employee are really important as it gives them a chance to rectify their mistakes and resolve the issue quickly and quietly without the need for a more formal process.
Actions for the staff member leading the verbal warning might be things like organizing regular check-ins or providing the right support to help the employee navigate the issue.
It’s important that everyone leaving the conversation is clear on what their actions are, and when they need to deliver them by.
Tips for issuing a verbal warning
1. Gather all relevant information
It’s important not to jump into a verbal warning without gathering all the relevant facts and information first.
Try to remain as objective as possible, and consider the issue from every angle to make the process fair.
2. Plan what you want to say
Planning is essential for a smooth-running process. It also helps to ensure emotion or feeling doesn’t take over.
Whether it’s a list of bullet point prompts, a detailed agenda or a loose outline of what you need to cover, it’s essential you go into the chat with a clear idea of what you want and need to say.
3. Deliver the warning in private
Delivering the warning in private is essential.
Ensure an appropriate space has been booked ahead of time, and that if the meeting is in a workplace calendar, it’s set to private.
You may wish to think about finding a space outside where you directly work if it would help the employee to feel comfortable, and ensure other members of staff are not located nearby.
4. Provide constructive criticism
Criticism should always be constructive.
When sharing what you’re not happy with, explain why and how it could be improved upon.
You may also wish to bookend the conversation in a more positive way, by sharing something or a few things you value in the employee’s work, to ensure they feel motivated and supported.
5. Outline clear expectations and consequences
The meeting will only be successful if everyone leaves knowing what’s expected of them, and when.
It might be that if the employee can’t resolve the issue by an agreed time period, you need to clearly outline what the next stage of the disciplinary process would be.
6. Consider the employee’s perspective
There are two sides to every story and it’s only fair to listen to what the employee has to say.
Their perspective may be one you haven't considered, and it may help to change your mind on the issue, or even resolve it right there and then.
7. Keep calm
The most important thing you can do is keep calm.
The employee receiving the verbal warning may be upset, confused or even angry, so it’s essential you remain a rational presence and don’t let your personal feelings get in the way of delivering information in a clear and rational manner.
When is a verbal warning not appropriate?
If the issue is really severe, or compromises the safety or integrity of another employee, a verbal warning wouldn’t be appropriate. In these cases, you may wish to consider a formal and severe disciplinary measure, or an immediate termination.
How long should verbal warnings last?
This is very dependent on the issue being discussed and the company policy. The time taken to resolve the issue should be appropriate to the severity of the issue.
If you’re unsure, it can help to talk confidentially to someone in HR or a senior manager, or look at other similar cases.
How do I handle situations where the employee denies the issue?
Firstly, try to remain calm.
Then, ask them to clearly explain the issue from their perspective, while questioning them on any inconsistencies or areas that don’t ring true.
If you have any evidence then you could share it and question the employee about it.
What can I do if the employee does not improve their performance?
If performance management hasn’t worked and no improvements have been made in the agreed time frame, you may wish to look at extending the warning, consulting a senior member of staff, or starting the next stage of the disciplinary process.